Religion and Patriotism on Decoration Day

May 31, 2010

On Sunday, May 30, 1954, an unexpectedly large congregation gathered for worship at the Christian Church in Somerset, Indiana, and as a result I came to a better understanding of a traditional intertwining of religion and patriotism in America.

I was student pastor in this little congregation, snuggled along the banks of the Mississinewa River, seventy-five miles north of Indianapolis. In early November, our historic brick chapel (building with green roof at center right) had been destroyed by fire, and since that time we had been meeting on the stage of the township school (large building on upper right) across the street from the parsonage (small house obscured by tree). This no-rent arrangement had been set up by Carl Albaugh, our leading member, who taught math at Somerset High, the very school from which he had graduated more than 40 years before.

A few weeks earlier, this same Carl Albaugh had offered me free tickets to the state basketball finals at Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Because of church duties the next day, I had turned down his offer, a decision I have regretted ever since. That was the game when Bobby Plump, from miniscule Milan High School, sank the basket at the buzzer that has become one of the legends of Hoosier basketball history.

Chauncey Kessler (first row, right end), another of the elders, who lived, with his sister Agnes on the same piece of land their grandparents had homesteaded, told me that as soon as the service was over the younger men would be loading up our folding chairs to take out to Vernon Cemetery where he was caretaker. They had to hurry in order to be ready for the community-wide Decoration Day ceremonies that would start in early afternoon.

I probably shortened my sermon a little and as one of the younger men I helped with the chairs. More important, I made it a point to attend the ceremonies even though my wife was in the last days of her first pregnancy. Our daughter Sharon, who now is General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was born thirteen days later. I remember only that a crowd showed up, the entire village, it seemed, and many people I had never seen before. Some of the older people referred to relatives whom they remembered from their childhood, men who had fought in the Civil War. Now the ancient ones slept in Vernon Cemetery and on this day every year people came out to remember them and to honor the nation whose unity they had preserved.

I remember nothing strident, either in political or religious language. The mood is what I remember. If there are words for it, they would be respectful gratitude. No claims of America’s righteousness or power. No insistence that America is a Christian nation or that crosses should be planted on public land or tablets of stone in courthouses around the nation. No demands that church and state should be disentangled.

Rather, there was the feeling that all of us enjoy freedom to live our lives in quiet places, to pray or not to pray, to let the boundaries between religious and public systems stay permeable because of the people, some of them perpetually at rest in Vernon Cemetery, who had protected these rights during the war that had defined America’s soul. (The photo below shows the congregation of the Somerset Christian Church in 1937; I became pastor sixteen years after this picture was taken.)

In the years since then, Decoration Day has become Memorial Day, and the veterans of America’s later wars are now remembered as much or more than those of that terrible war between North and South. Memorial Day has moved from May 30 to a Monday in order to allow a longer vacation from work and school. For an increasingly large proportion of the population, both piety and patriotism have been eclipsed by sporting events, family outings, and celebrations of the onset of summer.

We now live in a society in which theology is stringent and patriotism strident. But again this year I remember with gratitude my first—and perhaps only—real Memorial Day, a time long since gone when folk piety and simple patriotism were intertwined in little places like Vernon Cemetery, Waltz Township, Wabash County, Indiana.

Postscript: A few months following the Sunday described above, the Corps of Engineers announced plans to build a flood control dam down river from Somerset, near the small city of Peru, Indiana. Somerset would have to be relocated up to  higher ground near State Road 13. The school, of course would not be moved; in fact, it would be consolidated with larger schools in the county, which meant that the center of village life would disappear. Old cemeteries would be relocated, which meant that the graves, some of them nearly a century old, would be exhumed and reburied. Instead of little burial grounds hallowed by generations of burials and Decoration Days, the eternal resting places became the Mississinewa Memorial Cemetery, a bleak geometrical grid in what previously had been fields of corn and soybeans. Many thanks to Judy Garst Schram and George R. Lorenz who have posted pictures of old Somerset before the dam.

Bicycling the Potomac River with George

May 26, 2010

Clay, hard packed limestone, gravel, dual tracks with grass, and mud when it rains! For the longtime roadie that I am, satisfied only with the smoothest of pavements, a bicycle tour of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, which follows the winding course of the Potomac River, will be an exercise in patience.

My bicycle is ready: a Waterford touring frame, fenders, and 700 by 32 randonneur tires. The challenge is for me, the rider, to adapt a lifetime of habits to the unique characteristics of this remarkable passage through the eastern mountains.

For inspiration, I am depending upon George Washington, my spiritual companion on this journey, whose travels along the Potomac River led to its development for commercial and industrial purposes. In 1784, when George made the trip, he was fifty-two and, says biographer Joel Achenbach, “on the cusp of a period of life when deterioration takes hold, when the power fades from the grip, the joints ache, and a strict daily routine becomes appealing.” His military career behind him and the presidency still to come, the patrician master of Mount Vernon headed west to promote his grand idea for his Potomac River.

Since the bicycle had not yet been invented, George had to do the next best thing. He was a superb horseman, having spent his lifetime traveling through the mountainous wilderness to the west—as surveyor, military genius, land speculator, and now as business entrepreneur.

“He traveled light,” Achenbach reports, “with only the provisions that any gentleman would require for a frontier expedition: two kegs of West Indian rum, tea, seven pounds of sugar, a fruity spirit called Cherry Bounce, Madeira and Port wine, oil, mustard, vinegar, and ‘Spices of all sorts.’” He also carried a tent, extra horseshoes, water, fine sheets, and silver cups and spoons. The baggage he sent ahead with three servants and three horses, while he and James Craik, his friend and companion for part of the journey, traveled together.

Their first miles were through tired tidewater land, ravaged and wasted by a century of tobacco culture, with many of its fields reverting back to forestland. The scattered dwellings they passed were primitive, and the taverns and public places little better. Although the population was growing and commerce was increasing, there were many signs of decay, which George would see. “He had to wonder, in his moments of doubt” Achenbach suggests, “if the world would improve over time—if order would eventually trump chaos.”

It is hard for modern travelers to imagine what passed for roads. Achenbach’s description notes that often they were tunnels in the vegetation, “diabolical combinations of holes, mires, and tree stumps…The more a road was traveled by horses and wagons, the more the surface became chewed up and rutted, and eventually the whole track would be lower than the surrounding terrain, ensuring that water would flow into it…Roads were not self-healing, and eventually the track through the woods would not really be a road at all, just a linear bog.”

During the 1800s, canals and their towpaths promised improved routes for travel. Water levels could be kept consistent and towpaths made it possible to use animal power to keep the boats moving through most of the year and in both directions. It is our good fortune that some of these routes through difficult terrain—such as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal—have been preserved. They help us understand how America’s industrial prowess developed and why there was such a constant push for better roads throughout these early years of our nation’s rapid spread across the continent.

A bicycle journey along the C & O Canal can provide one more lesson for all who travel this quiet passage through the eastern mountains. It can increase our gratitude that sometimes the entrepreneurs and politicians lose the battle with Nature. Despite everything that he could do, the Father of our country and one of its wisest statesmen, misjudged what the Potomac could become. Its contorted course through the mountains and its sylvan topography were too much to overcome. Here, Nature’s passive resistance persisted and even yet, nearly four hundred years after early settlement, we still can see some of our world a lot like it used to be.

Bibliographical note: Quotations and the map of George Washington’s 1784 tour are taken from The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West by Joel Achenbach (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

Trying To Be Religious in the None Zone

May 24, 2010

As a religious historian, I know that our understandings of religion—both in the present tense and in its historical development—are shaped by where we stand. For me, the vantage point is the Pacific Northwest, liberal (some prefer progressive) Protestantism, and life-long membership in a church which the New York Times has referred to as a small, liberal leaning denomination. In recent years, I have written comments on American religion from this standpoint, which I intend to update and publish on an occasional basis in this, my online journal.

In 2005, I attended a conference on Religion in the Pacific Northwest sponsored by the Northwest House of Theological Studies, in association with First United Methodist Church of Vancouver, Washington. The planners had hoped that sixty-five people would attend. Instead, double that number showed up.

Headliner was Patricia O’Connell Killen, a Roman Catholic scholar at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Washington, and co-author of Religion in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone. Her presentations accented the theme of the book, which is that this region has always been distinguished by the high percentage of the population unaffiliated with churches. At the time of the study, the people who answered questions about religious preference with “none” was higher in this region than in any other part of the United States. Killen stated that the Pacific Northwest was a bellwether for the rest of the country that seemed to be moving in the same direction.

In Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, 37.2% of the population can be called adherents; they claim connections with a church and participate enough to be counted. A slightly higher percentage, 37.8%, are identifiers who claim to belong but do not participate. The rest are nones: people who make no claim at all to religious affiliation. A high percentage of them, however, affirm that they are interested in spiritual matters.

Killan’s presentations reminded me of Thomas Luckmann’s 1970 book, The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society, in which he claimed that in Europe and North America the religious process of creating a social, moral identity, which had always been done within a religious institutional context, is now being done individually. Perhaps, we now see that scenario unfolding in the Pacific Northwest.

Killen reported that the nones are demographically conventional, mostly male, and irreverent in politics and religion. This finding seems consistent with what most pastors have known, that men tend to stay away from church even when their wives are actively religious.

She also noted that since 1970 the population of the Pacific Northwest has increased 70% and the adherence rate has remained steady at a percentage in the mid 30s. Only Roman Catholics (11% of the population and 30.2% of adherents) and Mormons (3% of the population and 8.1% of adherents) have grown more rapidly than the population. She grouped two sets of churches (Holiness/Wesleyan/Pentecostal and Other Conservative Christian), which together reported 23.3% of adherents, as having advanced during the period of the study. The United Church of Christ and my denomination, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), have lost ground significantly, while the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have grown significantly.

Killen suggested reasons for the relative strength of certain churches: Catholic and Mormon Churches mediated salvation and Pentecostal and post denominational churches provided a palpable experience of God and practical help in life. Two explanations for the weakness of religion in the Pacific Northwest were offered: the challenge of the natural environment and the fact there has never been a dominant religion in the region.

It should be noted, however, that religion is but one of the institutions in the Pacific Northwest that struggle to retain adherents. Carl Abbot, long-time professor at Portland State University, has noted that in Oregon the mediating institutions—churches, labor unions, and political parties—are all weak. The mediating middle between individualism and interest in the public good is fulfilled, he suggests, by interest groups such as environmental organizations.

Killen’s constructive comments were worth pondering. Drawing upon theologian Edward Farley, she suggested that the church is invited to rethink how story, symbol, and ritual work. We are to help people center, sort, and embody. Second, our congregations as institutions need to work at brokering attachments for people, especially in these days when social relations are disrupted and fractured. Third, churches need to help people as they make their spiritual journeys. She refers to Henri Nouwen who wrote that we are to help people turn loneliness to solitude, hostility to hospitality, and illusion to prayer. Fourth, we should work seriously at the task of connecting the old religious task (helping people find forgiveness) to the new task, which is to help them find healing and energy.

Learning to Ride the Water Cycle

May 20, 2010

Sooner or later, anyone who bicycles in the desert Southwest begins to understand the crisis that is building up in that increasingly stressed part of the world. The basic problem for the Colorado river system, which collects the waters of this region and takes them to the Gulf of California, is easily described. Despite its might, this wild river cannot water and power Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Palm Springs, and San Diego. Nor can it be expected to make the deserts bloom year round with vegetables and fruit that require vast quantities of water in order to grow.

Until I read Fred Pearce’s When the Rivers Run Dry, I had assumed that the profligate over use of water in the American Southwest was unique. From Pearce I have come to realize that water is “the defining crisis of the twenty-first century.” The Colorado River system is but one example—and not even the worst case—of rivers around the world that are being abused, with some of them running dry. Among them: the Nile, Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Yellow, and the Lake Chad system of waterways.

He also shows that for the most part the death of rivers is caused by the steady, oftentimes principled action of some of the world’s smartest people. Engineers, politicians, and financiers convert the rivers into systems to irrigate dry land and generate power for the people. This heavy duty harnessing of the earth’s waterways throws the hydrological system out of balance. The water table plummets, critically important wetlands are turned to dusty wastelands, the probability and severity of flooding are increased, and long-settled people are left worse off than they were before.

Speaking more broadly about our way of life, Pearce declares that we should “learn to love the meanders” and learn “to ride the water cycle.” He refers, of course, to the cycle by which water moves from sky to earth to river to sky, bringing beauty and life to living things, but I want to bend his literary figures to my own purposes, using them to characterize the bicycle journey along the Potomac River that I will soon begin.

My route will be the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Like the river that the canal was built to improve upon, the C & O canal meanders, more than any other river I have traced on two wheels. Here bicyclists experience the water’s cycle because the system is still intact. The river runs with its ancient power still flowing, surrounded by the deep greenery of mountains and forests. The road surface itself—clay, gravel, crushed limestone, sometimes mud and only a little pavement—will encourage travel at a modest rate.

In 1784, when George Washington, superb horseman that he was, plotted the transformation of the natural river into a transportation artery, he could ride at five miles an hour. On my Waterford with 700 x 32 tires, I’ll try for fifteen. Cycling along through the leafy quietude of the Potomac’s banks, I will be able to see remnants of old-time travel and industry that still were maintaining a respectful complimentarily with the river’s way. The journey will also take me past sites that memorialize the nation’s convulsive, inconclusive efforts to rid itself of slavery more than a century and a half ago.

There will be full opportunity to develop a deeper appreciation for “Nature’s free services,” to use another of Pearce’s phrases, Nature’s own ways of “maintaining fisheries, protecting against floods and drought, cleaning pollution, delivering free irrigation on floodplains, watering valuable tourist sites, and much else too valuable to be lost.”

Cycling these clay paths at a slowed-down bicycle pace, is a way for some of us, at least, to see the world in a deeper way and begin to think how much better the world would be if all of us would learn to meander and to ride the water cycle. If we could reshape our modern civilization to Nature’s plan—as still is case along the Potomac—perhaps we could develop the willingness to scale back our craze for full development—as we are doing along the Colorado.

Note: Although I plan to travel solo, I gladly acknowledge the assistance given in various books, including practical advice from experienced tour guides Mary Shaw and Roy Weil.

Yakama Christian Mission

May 17, 2010

When Europeans came to the new world, they brought their religion along with their old world culture, diseases, guns, technology, and lust for land. Until recent times, the dominant point of view was that in order to become Christians Native American would have to make major modifications to their religion, culture, and traditional institutions.

One theater where this story has unfolded is the vast and agriculturally rich Yakima Valley in central Washington, most of which lies within the Yakama Indian Reservation. A key player in the drama is the Yakama Christian Mission, which was founded in 1921 by members of First Christian Church in Yakima, with the strong assistance of that church’s national mission board. Among the original sponsors of the mission was Lucullus V. McWhorter, who was one of the region’s most ardent advocates of the rights of Yakama people.

When the Mission was founded, near the town of White Swan, only 3,500 people, almost all of them Native American, lived on the Reservation. For the first time, Indian children could enroll in public schools, and the Mission’s primary work was to provide boarding facilities for children whose families still followed their ancestral migratory patterns.

Today the population on the Reservation is ten times larger. Half of the people are Hispanic and there are more Whites than Indians. The Yakama Christian Mission has evolved and over the years has provided a wide range of religious and social service ministries to the people of this region.

One of the most successful of these ministries was Sundown M Ranch, an alcohol treatment program, which was begun on Mission property in 1968. In later years, it became an independent agency and relocated to its current location north of Yakima.

Under the leadership of David and Belinda Bell and Jill Delaney, the work of the Mission continues, with a special emphasis upon work educational ministries children and youth. The Log Church on the original mission location continues to be a program center, but the Mission’s work also takes place in other parts of the Reservation, including the Justliving Farm where the Bells live and which they use as a teaching location. The current work of the Yakama Christian Mission is depicted on its website and insights into its work are posted regularly on the Mission Journal.

I became interested in the history of the Mission while participating in a work-study seminar at Mission sites. The result is a book, A Visible Sign of God’s Presence: A History of the Yakama Christian Mission. The “heart of the story,” says Loretta Hunnicutt, Ph.D., is “the gradual evolution of the Mission from an ethnocentric emphasis on reeducation/acculturation to one of acceptance of Native America practices of Christianity.” The book can be purchased from its publisher, the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee. Hunnicutt says that “lovers of historical story-telling will be drawn by Watkins’ narrative style which details the birth and evolution of the Yakama Mission—one of the most sustained efforts to convert Native Americans and meet their physical needs as well.”

Doing a 180

May 12, 2010

Every night when he rode with the guys, Mike Magnuson had trouble keeping up, no matter how hard he hammered. The fact that he weighed 255 pounds, smoked all of the time, and drank heavily several nights a week and on weekends, he decided, might be the reason.

On his 39th birthday, he quit smoking. Then he quit drinking. Still not enough! He gave up food, drinking a 550-calorie protein-shake three times a day. Fiercely, he kept up cycling—hard, night after night, on weekends, and at special events, especially hard ones.

A year later, Mike weighed 185 pounds. A hunger-caused break down on a ride with the guys had persuaded him to switch back to real food, but smoking and drinking were gone. His way of teaching and participating in academic life at the university had changed dramatically. He had become a different kind of husband and father. His career as writer picked up.

He wrote a book on the transformation. The title, Heft on Wheels, is eye-catching. Even more are the cover photos—Mike naked with all of his fat, and Mike clothed in his lithe new self. More important, however, is his sub-title, A Field Guide to Doing a 180.

This book is a testimony to the fact that people can make dramatic changes, moving from a self-destructive course to a life style filled with health, happiness, and achievement.

Mike, of course, is the hero in this story, the person who makes the decision, suffers the pain, and turns his life around. At every step along the way—every revolution of his wheel, it might be better to say—he has help: his wife who makes some of the changes right along beside him, the guys who meet at the bike shop night after night to ride, the sponsors of cycling’s toughest American events, colleagues on campus.

This story underscores the fact that turning one’s life around is hard work. Were it not for Mike Magnuson’s passion for cycling, it is not clear that he could have done it. But do it, he did, and that’s a reason for reading his book. When people allow positive passion to rule their life, they have a good chance of becoming the people they really hope to be. By the way, Heft on Wheels was published in 2004. You can follow Mike’s opinions on cycling at

Theo-Politics: The Kind of Talk We Really Need

May 10, 2010

How can religiously inspired ideas enter into political discussion so that theology transcends sectarianism and yet continues to be intellectually and emotionally potent? Often, this question has been answered by secularizing the discourse so much that theology virtually disappears, or by limiting the topics for which theology is allowed.

In The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Andrew J. Bacevich illustrates a better way. Using Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings as foundation, Bacevich translates a distinctively Christian theological view of reality into a public language that can be used by people who do not affirm Christian faith.

Niebuhr’s two principles were realism, which “implies an obligation to see the world as it actually is,” and humility, which includes the obligation to see ourselves “without blinders.” Hubris, realism’s enemy, “finds expression in an outsized confidence in the efficacy of American power as an instrument to reshape the global order.” Sanctimony, humility’s enemy, “gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes.” Because realism and humility are in short supply today, Bacevich declares, American life and America’s role in the world are deeply flawed.

Bacevich uses the idea of freedom to explain the deep problems of American domestic affairs and world policy. Our mindless pursuit of freedom has led to its distortion and diminishment. The “central paradox of our time”—the exercise of freedom that demands that we fight around the world—undermines our capacity to fight, jeopardizes our freedom, and aggravates the disorders affecting our political freedom.

The result is that America faces crises in economic, political, and military affairs, each of which Bacevich discusses provocatively, as might be expected since he is both a retired military officer and professor at Boston University.

Half of the book analyzes  political and military issues, but the chapter, The Crisis of Profligacy, interested me the most.  “For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.” In addition to its negative impacts upon personal character and well being, this quest has created a powerful and mostly negative impact upon foreign policy and American relations with the rest of the world.

Between 1979 and 1983, Bacevich writes, Americans made a fateful choice. “They could curb their appetites and learn to live within their means or deploy dwindling reserves of U.S. power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate their penchant for conspicuous consumption.” During this four-year interval, “ bookended by two memorable presidential speeches,” Americans chose the latter, making these years “the true pivot of contemporary American history, far more relevant to our present predicament than supposedly decisive events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

In July 1979, when many were insisting that threats to America came from external powers, President Jimmy Carter declared that “the real danger to American democracy lay within.” He identified an American “crisis of confidence” as “an outward manifestation of an underlying crisis of values.” In a speech delivered on March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative. In earlier speeches, he had countered Carter’s glum analysis, but in this one Reagan proposed that America had to become invulnerable and that technology could achieve that goal.

“Carter had portrayed quantity (the American preoccupation with what he had called ‘piling up material goods’) as fundamentally at odds with quality (authentic freedom as he defined it)…In Reagan’s view, quality (advanced technology converted to military use by talented, highly skilled soldiers) could sustain quantity (a consumer economy based on availability of cheap credit and cheap oil).”  Carter lost both the presidency and the argument. Most Americans have embraced the Reagan view and since then we have moved ever deeper into a morass with no exit in sight.

In his concluding chapter, Bacevich reaffirms his thesis that power is limited and he again calls Americans to realism rather than idealism. We should turn our attention to the two meta-challenges” of our time: “nuclear weapons and climate change.”

What Bacevich is arguing makes sense to me. The world is big enough for everyone, so long as each of us lives modestly—loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, all within the larger context of loving God with heart soul, mind, and strength.

Riverbank Rambles

May 6, 2010

When I first traveled along the Columbia River, it was by train rather than bicycle. Bonneville Dam was only half built, Grand Coulee Dam was still in the planning stage, and the river ran the way that Nature intended.

The mighty Columbia (on whose banks I now bicycle all of the time) had not yet become the fully developed “organic machine” that historian Richard White describes in his book by that name. All that I remember from that ride when I was six years old are night-lights glimmering on black water.

A little later, our family lived close to the Willamette River, one of the Columbia’s tributaries, and Mom and Dad, even though neither could swim, taught us to dog paddle in a quiet pool on the river’s edge that had been dredged to supply a rock crusher with material.

During seminary years, my wife and I lived in the ancient village of Somerset, on Indiana’s Mississinewa River—on the high side. “Why, even in the flood of 1913,” old timers told us, “the town was dry.” Imagine our distress when the Army Corps of Engineers decided to construct a flood control dam down river even though it would put an historic Indian burial ground and old Somerset under water. “Why should we have to move,” my Somerset neighbors asked, “because those people down at Peru (accent on the first syllable) had no better sense than to build their town on the flood plain?”

We lost, of course, as the people always do when contending with the Corps of Engineers, and more than half a century later I still grieve.

During a pastorate in California’s South San Joaquin Valley, we lived near the Kings River, which carried snowmelt from the high Sierra Nevada to the valley floor. When John Muir first beheld the scene, the desert was covered with a brilliant floral carpet. When I saw it, the valley was intensely planted to corn and cotton, grapes and nectarines and oranges, and Fresno (our county seat) proclaimed itself the agri-business capitol of the world.

Our long-time home in Indianapolis was near the White River and a short canal that provided a haven for ducks, a gravel towpath for cyclists, and respite from the city’s unrelenting geometrical grid. This dual waterway, which had failed to live up to the industrial hopes of earlier settlers, provided a neighborhood in which Nature and human community, including children, lived together in gentle harmony.

In later years, the Colorado River system has been the focus of my attention. Despite the fact that these streams flow through serious desert, they used to flow year round, maintaining a riverine way of life for fish, plants, animals, and people.

Even in ancient times, people have harnessed their rivers, seeking to improve upon Nature’s way. In many parts of the world, irrigation was the principal modification. Despite their small scale, irrigation systems were hard to sustain. Because of the build up of salt and silt and the rise of cities with concentrated political power, they could not be sustained forever.

An early irrigation civilization in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun perished, but many generations later, founders of a new village built on top of the old named it Phoenix, invoking the legendary creature that once had risen out of fiery ashes. Its irrigated way of life is far more complex and powerful than the ancient ones could have imagined, but its demise seems equally certain. The time comes when Nature’s way resumes control.

For forty years I have enjoyed hard-core cycling along America’s rivers—along the Ohio and the Wabash systems in the Midwest, the Colorado and its tributaries in the Southwest, and the Columbia River system in my native Pacific Northwest. The folly of large-scale diversion and irrigation has been at the center of my reflections.

During the summer of 2010, however, I am changing focus, with the Potomac River becoming the center of attention. In order to improve upon Nature’s watercourse, George Washington and entrepreneurs with plenty of public money and poor peoples’ blood and guts, constructed the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, twisting it along side of the river, all of the way from the nation’s capitol to Cumberland, Maryland. Now a National Park, the towpath provides a way for people to bicycle through time.

Which is what I plan to do, beginning in June. On my Waterford touring bike, I will travel this classic trail and reflect upon one interaction between Nature and engineers in which Nature has won and a world of tranquil beauty has managed to survive.

In your imagination, come ride with me. There is much to see and think about. I’ll keep you posted.

Power, Virtue, and Common Sense

May 3, 2010

“The most important book ever written on American public policy,” if we can believe Andrew J. Bacevich, began as lectures delivered on college campuses shortly after the close of World War II. The lecturer was Reinhold Niebuhr, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and his speeches were published in 1949 as The Irony of American History.

President Obama is well versed in Niebuhr’s ideas, which may be one reason why the University of Chicago Press has reissued the book, sixty years after its first appearance. It has a new introduction by Bacevich whose 2008 book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, draws extensively upon Niebuhr’s work.

Niebuhr’s organizing motif is irony, which he describes as a situation with incongruities that on the surface seem unrelated, but upon closer examination are closely tied together. “Virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue,” and “strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt” the person or nation that is strong.

Applied to American life, irony comes in two patterns. First, the good in American life—our scientific developments, our emphasis upon the dignity of every person, our freedoms, our preeminence in world affairs—carries with it unrecognized tendencies which, if allowed to develop unchecked, undercut or destroy the good. Second, certain elements of American society that are undervalued or scorned—the young, the deviant, the culturally dispossessed, the uneducated—possess within themselves the possibilities of contributing new strength that can make the nation better.

Irony helps us understand that America’s necessity to exercise power carries with it the inescapable development of guilt.

Niebuhr’s illustration is the threat to use atomic weapons after World War II. As Americans, we had always thought of ourselves as a most innocent and virtuous nation, but after the war we also found ourselves the world’s most powerful. We were custodians of the most destructive weapon ever developed, and we could not disavow its use in order to maintain our virtue. Yet if we had used it, we would have covered ourselves with a terrible guilt.

For Americans, the irony is that “the greatness of our power is derived on the one hand from the technical efficiency of our industrial establishment and on the other from the success of our natural scientists. Yet it was assumed that science and business enterprise would insure the triumph of reason over power and passion in human history.” We know that this assumption was (and is) ill founded.

The ironic dimension of American foreign policy helps us understand current efforts to protect the world from forces that threaten freedom, dignity, and life itself. The exercise of power has been defended as the action of a nation that believes in freedom and wants to extend it to people around the world. Yet, the defense of freedom, supported by a significant body of intellectual analysis, has led the nation into preemptive wars in the Middle East.

Not only has this warfare brought violence and suffering; it has also caused our military forces to engage in actions that emulate many of the most coercive tactics of those whom we battle in the name of our superior freedoms and way of life.

Toward the end of his book, Niebuhr writes that in America common sense trumps theory. Truth “becomes falsehood, precisely when it is carried through too consistently.” Common sense prevents both of the primary theories (Niebuhr calls them wisdoms) now operating in America from being carried through to their logical conclusions.

Niebuhr writes as a theologian, often drawing upon the Bible in order to show the ironic point of view in full operation. His book is a splendid example of how theological ideas can be brought into public discourse in ways that transcend sectarianism. Social policy and political action would be improved if more of our public discourse were of this kind.

In the nation’s capitol and in legislative assemblies around the country, let this be remembered: Carried too far, held until the bitter end, our virtues become vices. When we are most certain of ourselves, those things we demean or despise may lead to positive change.

Niebuhr is right. A renewed awareness of the ironic character of American culture and politics could allow common sense to trump our ideologies again. The result: foreign policy and political action at home would both be much improved.

Note: Thanks to Pastor Bob Cornwall, friend and mentor, who is posting this review on his blog in order to help spread the word.